Friday, November 27, 2009
"Where were you when it happened?"
Every generation has them. Every country, every civilisation, race, culture, anything that binds people together beyond the call of blood. Moments of dread, fear and grief so profound that reverberate in public memory for years . You could ask a complete stranger in the subway the above question and he would tell you as if it happened yesterday. Every so often, we become so innocent, so cocooned in our world of the mundane and usual that it seems like it would last forever. And then something like this shatters that glass palace we live in and reminds us that it's a different world out there, with dangerous misguided men and women and children who kill because they feel it is right and honourable to do so.
When Rajiv Gandhi died I was a child standing at the mezzanine of my grandparents house, wondering why all the adults were so agitated. When the twin towers fell I was at home, idly flipping through channels until I stumbled on CNN. When Benazir Bhutto was assasinated I was at KFC with a friend, talking of this and that.
And 26/11? I was waiting for my nine hour shift to finish, tired and hungry, staring with dread at a blinking red flash on my computer screen that indicates breaking news, because that could mean I would have to stay beyond my regular hours. Of course, I had to stay back, but by then, the dread would be replaced by a completely different kind of dread altogether.
Leopald Cafe was the first battleground. The buzz still was that it was gang warfare, but there was this undercurrent of tension, a certain catch in their voices betraying fear and apprehension. "Maybe if I don't say it out loud" they seemed to think "Maybe it won't be true. Maybe it won't be the worst." Terrorism isn't a word that was suggested for quite a while. But when it was, it was like someone had turned on the tap. Fear, panic, dread, apprehension, anger all came gushing out . Television anchors wailed, people turned white. Bits and pieces of footage were permanently etched to memory. A speeding car rushing by, accompanied by the crack-crack-crack of gunfire and images of people hitting the ground. Security camera footage of a man craning his neck, his posture more curious than panicky, before crumbling to a heap in stop-motion. A human life snuffed out in an instant. Father's rushing by with their children, his body a frail shield even as he looks around fearfully, not knowing when , or where the next strike would come from. Police crouching behind barriers, clearly in over their heads, their ancient rifles and insufficient training no match for the ten terrorists running roughshod over the financial capital of one of the largest countries in the world. A nation brought to it's knees by a few misguided and violent young men armed for death. Blood on the streets . Gunshots in alleys. And then, in that cold November night, flames licking at the dome of the Taj, chilling the heart of our country to its very core.
A maelstrom of images as the siege of Mumbai went on for nearly sixty hours. Battle lines were drawn and the enemy was, if not cornered, at least restricted to certain locations of their choosing. Taj. Oberoi. Nariman House. CST. The death toll was a neverending counter from our nightmares . But after the initial shock, after it had sunk in that this was war, people went on with their duties. After all, an advantage of being a journalist is, tragedy usually means much more work. Shock and anger can be drowned by the sheer slogging necessary to get the job done. So 26/11 went by. So did 27/11. Images replaced other images. Commandos dropping from a helicopter on the roof of Nariman House. Looking through their sniper rifles. Panic turned to controlled chaos, and then, waiting for the inevitable. Nine of them died.One hundred and sixty six of us. Could it have been worse? Sure. But as the ninth man fell, as Ajmal Amir Kasab was dragged out and taken to custody, as the stories of valour rolled out, as names like Major Unnikrishan and Tukaram Omble entered the history books, did we win? I don't see how. For three days these men had held one of our biggest cities hostage. For three days they had killed, tortured and maimed our citizens and our guests. In those three days they told us that even our highest and mightiest could be brought down with ten ordinary men from the villages of Pakistan. Terror was not new to India, but this was a different beast. We lost the battle. Time will only tell if we win the war, or if the war CAN be won.
Post 26/11 things happened. Some people lost their jobs. Some people pointed fingers. Anger was palpable. For once, India was one nation. Certain politicians went underground, realizing that their mantra of language based hatred was perhaps not pragmatic when so many men from all over the country had fought and died for Mumbai. Of course they would resurface, and of course people would vote for them, but for a while at least, there was blessed relief. Stricter security measures were announced, some even implemented. Diplomatic pressure was applied to our neighbours, although many would agree, not enough. In a few days, normal life resumed. People walked the streets again, albeit with a little more fear in their hearts. But, it hurt. It hurt because I know that this happened not because they were strong, but we were weak. It hurt because sometimes it feels like there are no Indians anymore. That the social fabric of the country has become so fragile, so infirm, that the slightest tap can send a spiderweb of cracks running through its surface. It hurts because we find it so easy to hate and ridicule each other on the basis of religion, caste, language, class, income. The flag has become a patchwork quilt, coming apart at the seams. As a journalist, I try to be impassionate about things. I try to be wry, and cynical, just so it doesn't affect me. But I feel like I have lost my Country. As if I don't know what it means to be Indian anymore. And it really really hurts.